Ain’t No Spin Here

Does your bow tie revolve?

Image: Autocarsindustry

Inspiration arrives in many forms. In today’s story, mystery, elements of sophistry and in this instance, anaglypta and food all play their respective parts as we peer into the entomology of a globally renowned car badge, yet one with an indeterminate history. Some believe that the badge is in fact a cross, stylised over generations, but the only genuine certainty is that Chevrolet’s badge is indeed a bow tie, although how this came to be is subject to one of four possible permutations.

The first of these suggests that company co-founder William Crapo Durant introduced the bow tie motif onto his cars in 1913, two years after the company’s inception. One simple but uncorroborated story involves the Swiss chap whose name went on to emblazon millions of vehicles over the intervening years – Louis Chevrolet. Possibly as an homage to the drapeu de la Suisse, it seems a blatantly obvious connection until one realises that Louis had left the company by 1915.

An altogether more elaborate reasoning stems from a story centred around a newspaper advertisement that Durant is said to have viewed in 1912, as related by Catherine Durant to interviewer Lawrence R. Gustin some years after her husband’s passing. On vacation in Hot Springs, Virginia, Durant noticed a bow tie emblem featured on another altogether different product – Coalettes, a refined solid fuel. Considering it to be suitable for his cars, he exclaimed to Catherine,this is the Chevrolet badge!’ The anecdote is compelling: both names begin with the letter C, both are nine letters long, both give Americans some difficulty in pronunciation and perhaps significantly, this exchange is said to have taken place only nine days into Chevrolet production.

Lending further credence to her comments was a discovery made in the early 21st century. Ken Kaufman, historian and editor of the Chevrolet Review happened across an advert dated 12 November 1912 in the Atlanta Constitution. The Southern Compressed Coal Company carried the advertisement for Coalettes with the very same slanted bow tie. Proof positive? Read on!

While this tale seems close to the truth, the third element to the bow tie story remains (literally) mired in broth. Durant’s daughter, Margery, published a memoir titled, My Father in 1929, some sixteen years after the first use of the now famous badge. In her book she explains how her father’s searching mind consumed his waking hours with a constant flow of ideas. At home over dinner, during a lull between the soup and chicken course, the bow tie was doodled onto a napkin.

How Chevy fans would flock to the museum should that napkin have survived – itself becoming inspiration for the use of envelopes, cigarette packets or other waste paper to foster new ideas. Proud fathers could extol to their children how this napkin had altered automotive history. Sage nods of approval from deep-thinking enthusiasts. But just a moment: do you remember what your evening meal was yesterday, never mind sixteen years ago?

William and Catherine Durant. Image: Brittanica

The final bow tie theory is also paper based and remains a personal favourite. A wealthy and flamboyant character, Durant was taking a tour of a European nature in 1908. In an unknown Parisian hotel, he became quite taken with the wallpaper which, you guessed it, wore a repetitive bow tie pattern – ‘marching into eternity’ as he is said to have declared. So impressed was Durant that he ripped a section from the wall and returned to the factory, triumphant that his new cars would have this as their badge. 1908 was the year he founded General Motors with both Buick and Oldsmobile having pre-established emblems.

Your author’s imagination sees a puzzled hotel manager with equally perplexed painter and decorator discussing, ‘qu’a fait le fou riche Américain?’ Or perhaps back home, the serving staff casually discarding the doodled napkin bearing that historical motif to the trash can? Or maybe even an impossibly disgruntled Louis Chevrolet, annoyed at Durant’s ideas over car production methods (he left in 1915, selling his shares to WCD), cursing quietly at his cars now wearing something resembling his home flag. Merde! 

Apart from the second story sounding the most plausible, we’ll probably never learn the truth – apart from the fact that no team of artists, thinktanks or graphic designers had anything to do with the original. Which is more than can be said about concurrent iterations. As a badge, the Chevy bow tie is up there with the most valuable – well over 200 million and counting.

What next? As grille-less electric cars gain hold, will badges become larger, more swashbuckling in demeanour – or will those hydrogen powered motors simply squirt water at you? We’ll leave the last line to Billy Durant himself. “Science gives us knowledge but only philosophy can give us wisdom.”

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

16 thoughts on “Ain’t No Spin Here”

  1. Chevrolet certainly became GM’s everywhere brand, even if you don’t include the misguided renaming of Daewoo. Holdens,
    Opels, Vauxhalls all appeared elsewhere in the world from their home markets as Chevrolets. Sometimes a simple rebadge like the Chevrolet versions of Holden’s Commodore, through to major engineering changes like GM South Africa’s Chevrolet versions of Opels and Vauxhalls or some of the South American Chevrolets.
    Now that GM has discarded it’s European operations to PSA/Stellantis and closed down Holden, (and, indeed, nearly all RHD market work), my guess is that it will be so again when GM USA decides to branch out again.

    Or will it be Buick?

    1. I rather like that version of the logo:

      Sort of a 3D version of the 1940-1950 one. The blue works well, I think, although the alignment of the four elements and the contrast between the 3D and 2D elements is a bit of a mess.

  2. Good morning Andrew and thank you for this interesting history. I have never really taken to the current ‘gold bow tie’ iteration of the Chevrolet badge. I think the colour looks a bit chintzy and reminds me of those impossibly naff gold-plated badges you occasionally see on old Lexuses (Lexi?)

  3. Some of the late Chevrolet-badged cars in the EU were quite okay. Readers here will doubtless recall my Epica experience. Two things stick in my mind when I pass the neighbour´s Epica. One is that it was a very fine drive – the self-centring steering and tough-as-old-slippers quality was a pleasure. The other was the really chintzy badge. It is very definitely the least attractive badge I have seen on a car for a very long time. I don´t have a roster of worsts but it might even be the worst. They look cheaply made and have a nasty colour combination. I suppose the point was not to compete with Opel. Which of course they probably did as the products were quite cheap and fairly similar. The badge brings into focus GM´s cack-armed handling of its worldwide marketing operations. Next, Cadillac with its low-grade chain hotel script logo.

    1. Hi Richard. Ah, the Chevrolet Epica. I wonder how many European readers can even picture one in their mind, given how utterly anonymous it looked. Here it is:

      And here are its European sales figures, just in case you were wondering:

      2010 2,038
      2009 3,439
      2008 5,568
      2007 8,087
      2006 3,481

      I’m sure it was a perfectly ok car, but trying to position Chevrolet as a budget brand beneath Opel / Vauxhall, which was hardly prestigious to start with, was not GM’s brightest idea ever. Europe needed Chevrolet like a fish needs a bicycle.

    2. Richard, I had to look this one up. I heard of the Chevrolet Epica, but I couldn’t picture what the thing looks like. In my defense: there are only 611 registered today 😉

    3. Not a great success in Australia, under the Holden badge. I remember seeing one the other day and wondering what it was. How quickly we forget…..

  4. Chevrolet apparently means ‘roebuck’ in old French. I guess they chose the bow tie logo to avoid the impression that the cars were, ahem, a little deer.

    I’ll get my coat.

    1. Well that was a good one!!!
      Oh, “Chevrolet”!!!

  5. Good afternoon, y’all. Looking at the first picture in the article there seem to be some years where there were no bow ties. I don’t imagine Chevrolet was without a logo. There are also a couple of years where different styles of bow ties overlap.

    1. Those are the logos as they appeared in print advertising and brochures. On owners’ documents, company letterhead and shop manuals etc they kept the 1914-50ish variations throughout.

      They were different on the cars themselves starting in the mid ’30s when the “Chevrolet” lettering was removed from the bowtie; the color change from blue to yellow/gold also happened years earlier on grilles and steering wheels (1973 model year, at least for North American-market trucks and cars, although it was deemphasized in favor of model-line script branding on the latter at the time.) Red bowties had also appeared on trucks on-and-off from the mid ’50s through ’72. Sometime in the early ’90s they tried a color code – blue on cars, red outline/red around black on performance models, gold on trucks – but that was phased out in favor of all gold around 2005.

      In the 2010s black bowties which had become a common mod, started to show up as factory equipment at first as part of an appearance package but there’s no way to get gold ones on a Bolt E(U)V anymore.

  6. A nice article Andrew, utilizing its logo as a jump start discussion about the Chevrolet brand, bravo! very interesting.
    I remember the disappointment of the “CRUZE” when introduced in Europe…is this the CHEVROLET we were dreaming of, watching Hollywood all our lives?
    What a way to ruin a brand’s Kasse!

  7. I think you meant etymology, not entomology right? (I saw the brief summary in my RSS app and thought maybe this was going to be about Abarth.)

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